I was not the only Jewish child in our small town in Vermont in 1980. I had a sister, two years younger. The Brooklyn-born science teacher at our public school had two young children. We were friends with another Jewish family who lived a few towns away.
But I had no real sense of Jewish ritual, no context for what that year of 12 going on 13 ought to be. My religious experiences to that point included having a large role in the musical Christmas pageant, singing in the Christmas concert every year, and rehearsing for summer theatre productions in the Zion Episcopal Church basement.
My father decided that I was to have a bat mitzvah. I didn’t object, but neither did I know what it was. I had never learned Hebrew and it didn’t occur to anyone that this might be the proper opportunity to start instruction. At any rate, there was no rabbi nearby. The local synagogue was a shack on the grounds of the lumberyard, left over from the previous century. A Jewish peddler had opened up a shop, supplying the marble workers and farmers with dry goods. Over the years, other wandering Jews would make their way to town by Friday night for a shared Shabbat behind the store.
I learned this history later. For my childhood however, the lumberyard shack was a place we went for two days in the autumn, days when I was mysteriously excused from school, to sit among muttering old men wearing white shawls and black yarmulkes. Without leadership or explication, the services were as meaningless to me as the prayer books, written solely in Hebrew. When asked at school to explain the reason I had been out, I told them about Passover instead. The Hagaddah repeated that you should teach each generation, as if they had just come out of the wilderness, and so because of the annual recitations, I knew that story.
Some years earlier, we had been invited to the bar mitzvah of a second cousin from Long Island. We followed the directions to Leonard’s of Great Neck. We arrived late, having driven all the way in from Vermont. We changed into our party clothes in the car and rushed inside. From the lobby, my mother recognized the strains of “Hava Nagila” and barged through the nearest doors. We recognized no one, but these were not close cousins. After a few minutes, my mother pulled us out: wrong party. We heard the song starting again and ran down the mirrored hall to another celebration room. There was another bar mitzvah boy in a corduroy suit, surrounded by aunts in glittering dresses. But they were not our cousins either. It turned out there were seven simultaneous simchas that Saturday at Leonard’s. My sister and I talked about it for years; we had never seen so many Jewish kids together in one place.
Later, at summer camp and college, New York friends would talk about the year of their bar/bat mitzvah: every weekend another party, one fancier than the next. I envied those girls their collections of party dresses, the chance to put on makeup and wear hair up in French braids, the endless opportunities for Israeli dancing. It seemed the closest thing to the season of celebratory balls held for eligible young women in Jane Austen novels as I would find in the modern age.
The year before my bat mitzvah, Chaim Potok had published a tremendous coffee table book called “The Wanderings,” a history of the Jewish people. My father knew all about wandering. A Greek Jew born in Athens, my father had survived the Italian and German occupation. Afterwards, he had left Greece for medical school in Switzerland, and then studied in Chicago, at Yale and in New York. He had opened a practice as a psychiatrist in Connecticut, but moved his family to Vermont. He fastened on the idea of recreating the excitement of the journey of the Jews to the Promised Land starting with Abraham in Ur, the Exodus from Egypt and continuing up to the exile to Babylonia. “The Wanderings” became our Bible.
For my coming of age, my father wanted me to present a play about Hitler, Mussolini and Chamberlain, about Czechoslovakia and the dangers of appeasement. These were mere names to me, pictures from history books. For him they were real, powerful individuals who had shaped his youth, invaded his country, taken his classmates away. He wanted me to feel this urgency, to understand the issues, to know that though the war had ended, the conflicts — based on the clash of religious and political metaphor — would endure.
For my father, his own history — surviving the war in hiding, the destruction of the Jewish community of Greece — was still fresh and in need of exploration. I realize now that he was the one who was at a transition point, coming to terms with the past. A few months after my bat mitzvah, he went around the world to psychiatric conventions in many countries to attempt to explain his revolutionary theory of conflict resolution. He stopped in Israel and had his own bar mitzvah ceremony at the Western Wall.
My mother had grown up in Brooklyn in a prosperous and secular family. My grandmother — a product of haskala, or enlightenment, in Poland — rejected religious observance and took her children to Chinese restaurants on Yom Kippur, though she briefly sent my mother’s brother to Yeshivah of Flatbush, just in case. My mother had little experience with bat mitzvahs, but a lot of experience with musicals: she had been a dancer and choreographer.
My mother insisted that to keep the local audience interested, we needed songs, costumes and production numbers. And so my bat mitzvah became an interactive musical revue with acts such as: The Boogie Woogie Patriarchs, the Munich Hat Dance, a monologue from Spinoza and a reading of Anne Frank. And then we re-enacted “The Wanderings” across the acres of our property in Vermont. My father rode the tractor, pulling a wagon full of children, while the adults walked behind carrying signs with sayings of the prophets.
It was a memorable event for all of us. For many of my classmates and local friends, it was the first Jewish event they’d ever attended. Years later a childhood friend told me that she had been invited to another bar mitzvah, a traditional one. She sat through the religious service, the Hebrew reading and the speeches wondering when they would get to the part where the family puts on costumes and sings that Boogie Woogie song.
As coming-of-age ceremonies go, my bat mitzvah was transformative, if untraditional. My sister and I were inspired to continue writing musicals. My parents discovered their enjoyment of hospitality and now run an inn, with parties celebrating all sorts of events. But as I learned more about what I had not done, I admired and envied those who had learned the tropes, read from the torah and earned a real place in the Jewish community.
At boarding school, amid a thousand preppies wearing L.L. Bean bluchers, I found the handful of Jewish students who met each week in the basement of the chapel for Friday night services. Rabbi Everett Gendler taught us to build a sukkah and shake the lulav in six directions. I learned that melba toast is not acceptable for Passover, even though it is flat. That dieting on Yom Kippur is not the same as fasting. I studied French, German and Russian, but Hebrew wasn’t offered. So I learned all the songs and prayers by heart. In the summer I went to Israel, and became a counselor at a NFTY (the Reform movement’s youth group) summer institute. By the time I was a senior, I was the president of the Jewish Students Union of Phillips Academy.
I married a Ramaz graduate and our children attend Jewish day school. They speak, read and write Hebrew fluently. And now my 12-year-old son is preparing for his own bar mitzvah. Almost every Saturday during the school year, he attends a b’nai mitzvah service and then a disco party with a deejay and ice sculptures. With great pride, I am planning his own event in the elegant synagogue in our neighborhood. He already knows how to layn and is willing to go along with my plans for a traditional service for his big day, but what he’d really like to do is perform an original rock musical and then ride the tractor with my father around our property in Vermont, posting signs with the sayings of the prophets.
Tajlei Levis is a writer living in Manhattan and Manchester, Vt. Her latest project is writing book and lyrics for the new musical “The Bootlegger & The Rabbi’s Daughter.”